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Cultivating 21st Century Capabilities


We want our organizations to be “fit for the future”—resilient, inventive, engaging, and responsible.  We want every person to bring his or her full ingenuity, passion, and initiative to work every day.  Yet, few leaders and organizations have applied much ingenuity or attention to developing human beings who are fit to lead, invent and inspire in today’s “creative economy.”

Management training and development has traditionally focused on helping leaders to develop a particular portfolio of cognitive skills: left-brain thinking, deductive reasoning, analytical problem solving, and solutions engineering. Twenty-first-century leaders require new intellectual capabilities, including …

  • Reflective thinking (consciously examining deep assumptions, getting at root causes)
  • Systems thinking (understanding and architecting complex social systems)
  • Design thinking (exploiting creative disciplines in problem-solving)
  • Emotional intelligence (an ability to understand and shape human emotions to productive ends) 
  • Spiritual intelligence (an ability to apply ethical thinking to business dilemmas, and to imbue work with purpose and meaning)
  • Social intelligence (an ability to use the new tools of the “social web” to create organizations that are transparent, flexible, meritocratic and collaborative).

These, and other, human capabilities will be increasingly critical to organizational success in a high-change, high-accountability environment.  Unfortunately, there is little in the average business school curriculum or corporate training program that cultivates these, and other, essential capabilities.

Challenge Question: 

What will it take to develop and support the sort of leaders who be capable of guiding 21st century organizations?  Or, in other words, how do we fundamentally rethink management education, training, and development (indeed, all education, training, and development) to revitalize the “supply side” of the creative economy? 


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johannes-gerhard-schute's picture

Relay like this one - although I think, this Challenge Question is not about management in the first place, but about personal development and growth of each and every one.
So to me you could rephrase the Challenge Question: How can we make personal development of employees an average goal of any company. And how can we teach managers to build companies that foster that.

jack-douglas-cerva's picture

Take a look at some new strength based research. One example is Zenger-Folkman work for How to be Exceptional. McGraw Hill, adding a more productive twist to the Gallup Strengh based work.
With all change, we will also need to look at the systems that support the current realm- if we dont move those...... (board role, compensation systems, governance) it may all be lost, and today maybe a social media watchdog is required.

Jack Douglas

k-sangal's picture

I think before coming to the topic of building capacities to develop and support the sort of leaders who could guide and glide our organizations through 21 st century, we must ponder over an idea as to how we traversed through 20 th century and reached our present stage.

Not going much into historical and poltical detailings, one can easily conclude that we have created uneven islands of developments in our global village. In the begining, all these efforts to develop and progress were individual oriented, particular society oriented and finally the country oriented.So the last century gave many of us a tremendous taste of development and progress in terms of easy and more healthy life styles and now in 21 st century we must focus our energies towards making developement and progress more equitable to all.

So, now we need leaders and management practioners who can think rationally beyond borders .and now onwards, the key to success lies in thinking globally but working locally.There is no dearth of solutions in this world but applications is....It is therefore, I feel the success of 21st century will lie in the calculated risk of courageous applicators.

Now the question is how to spot and nurture these applicators!!!!

The most important quality which is going to make difference is compassion. So let us find ways to make our future applicators more compassionate so that they remain just and fair in their approach.

Compassion ( if defined empirically)is directly propotional to the capacity to understand and solve problems in just ways i.e ethically. However, it could be inversely proportional to less profits in terms of account book values. So choice is ours......what we want in life and leave for our future generations.

asad-sahir's picture

It is an excellent thought provoking question which led to an idea of encouraging internships in emerging and developing markets by the help of an academia-industry-government consortia model.

Please refer to my remark which reflects on an idea and is a subset of the larger idea conveyed by this challenge.

jessie-henshaw's picture

One of the surprising things systems scientists are finding out about engaging with natural complex systems (what we're having trouble with) is that it's actually *studying how the whole system really works that will make it work better for us*. It just makes sense of course.

What's much more surprising is that the science of the 20th century, including economics, actually never studied how the systems of the natural world themselves worked, in their own right, as individual cells of organization. Science has always studied its own theoretical models, recreating nature in its own image, the way people liked to imaging it in theory. The difference turns out to be much greater than just an error of approximation.

Our theoretical images of nature are vastly different from the real thing. Theories need rigidly inter-dependent parts in controlled relationships. Nature doesn't. Her mysterious success is with building locally on self-defining parts that enter into self-defining relationships. So the new environmental challenge includes the shift from the one viewpoint to the other. It’s proving particularly difficult.

In practical terms it opens up a wonderful new landscape to explore, but also suggests taking needed "long pause" to get our bearings rather than rushing ahead with our historic ill-conceived plans for a limitlessly faster change and growth. Of course "pause" is quite undefined for an economy designed to change ever faster, too. It makes that the first of the new problems to manage.

Some of the best hard and clear evidence this is not “philosophy” concerns the conceptually flawed measurement methods our conceptually flawed models have let us make, and the "bad information" we've been collecting from them. It seems it just never mattered before, whether the way we measured environmental impacts was accurate or not.

Now we find the standard method for measuring business energy use has been commonly leaving 80% uncounted. Why? The economists who developed the ISO and LCA protocols decided not to try to count the energy demands of business services, the great majority of economic activity that businesses pay for to operate. Now that "technical glitch" has been solved, with a method called SEA, making clear that a “pause” to rethink really would not be a bad idea.

see my further remark on the challenge of changing impact measures:

kerry-oconnor's picture

In the spirit of "do to think," a 21st century capabilities challenge could be more of an umbrella challenge, that is not only about education, training and development. It could be about the many facets of reinventing management for the 21st century, which result in renewed education, training and development on these topics. This would enable the challenge to embrace many of the excellent ideas represented by other contributors.

At work, I helped support the Open Government Partnership, and the model has captivated me. Countries select their own grand challenges from a list. The make concrete commitments according to what they feel they're capable of doing right now. They declare their commitments to the partnership group. They have access to peer consultation and networking to help them along their journey. They meet regularly to check each other's progress, and they open themselves up to a self assessment and independent assessment.

What if you had a group of organizations willing to say "we're going to take on the challenge of... transforming HR? Redefining middle management? increasing engagement? refining our approach to innovation? bringing more empathy in our organization?" or whatever the umbrella categories are?

You could have the previous M Prize winners act as virtual coaches and consultants on the MIX forum for organizations that wanted to follow their lead. And at the end of one year, you could be able to measure the impact of what changes because these organizations all committed to undertake some piece of the management transformation puzzle.

ratna-mukherjee's picture

I feel this challenge has tremendous potential for the 21st century. This can transform the way we look at people in orgaisations across the globe in a radically different way. In my experience of working with people of very different backgrounds and skills , with or without management education, I discovered one thing- people with limited formal higher education and little training were capable of delivering outstanding results, comparable to the work of highly educated managers with a lot of training and education at premier institutions. The basis of this was faith in them and lots of encouragement and trust. Understanding this will help save the world , especially developing countries precious resources( time, money, people ). Also, it will help in developing people- sensitive training and education programmes which are not universal in nature but take in to account the very different circumstances which shape human minds and behaviour. One-size -fits -all is a recipe for disaster in the 21st century.

kerry-oconnor's picture

As I run an employee ideation program in my organization, and I look around at what impedes inventiveness, adaptability, resiliency, and inspiration, its the lack of these qualities: reflective thinking, systems thinking, design thinking, as well as emotional, spiritual, and social intelligence. I believe that getting these qualities into our curricula and conversations will go a long way to helping employees and leaders rediscover their sense of curiosity and possibility.

Of all the challenges, it is this one that has the largest potential to scale to any industry or sector. It helps develop the mindset in individuals and organizational cultures that can tackle any problem or challenge thrown its way.

As it is, you see a lot of management consulting companies bringing various elements of design thinking (empathy, emotional insights, experimentation, prototyping) into their practices, along side more traditional analytical methods. This challenge would be perfecting timed to ride the wave of how do you move beyond design thinking and innovation hype to a practical, long term, sustainable way of being in the 21st century.

sally-bendersky's picture

In order to rethink management education within the creative economy, which demands different skills than the productive economy, (emotional, spiritual, social intelligence; and reflective, systems, design thinking), it is necessary to give maximum value to human potential and place it in the center of our efforts. Regardless of cultural and social diversity, all human beings have a potential and we express ourselves through a combination of our physical bodies, our emotions and feelings, and our very particular human verbal language, a language which can create new realities. It is possible and necessary, in order to develop human potential at its peak, to learn how to deal with each of these domains and their interaction as early in life as possible, and continue to do so in a life-long learning process. In that way, the students starting business schools or corporate training will bring with them, naturally, their 21st century qualities. In the meantime, while education changes its paradigms, it should be mandatory for professional and corporate training to include conversational skills (what it is that we do when we have conversations) in the curriculum, and to help the students and trainees experiment the connection between body, emotion and verbal language. After all, conversation is most of what we do and will continue doing in organizations.

jennifer-long's picture

It's not just about the skills it's also about how you learn them and who's teaching, coaching, delivering (making it relevant), and disciplining you to achieve the learning curve, master the skills and apply it in real time. Real capability includes it all.

frederic-jleconte's picture

All dimensions of "I" have been very well received as a nice to have set of skills.
However not much did change about evaluating executives and assigning according to his set.
Then innovation, creativity and people engagement are in every corporate speech.
It is time to move the line and solve the paradox.
Reason for myself to vte this challenge up.

dan-kelly's picture

There seems to be a lot of opportunity in today’s business environment for “futurizing” an organization. This is much more than deploying the latest gadget or implementing the next trend in software, it is building into our human factor the cognitive ability to adapt new paradigms in how to work with each other. New ways to think about the issues at hand that provide workable solutions for what is happening now and what will happen in the future.

The great thinkers of the Renaissance age looked to multiple disciplines in defining their perception of the work before them. Today, in much the same way we should cultivate a broader scope of convention in building the acumen of our assignments. We are obligated to bring together the contrasting facets of design, technology, sales and business around a contemporary behavior committed to getting more done with fewer resources.

dicle-kortantamer's picture

As complexity increases in the 21st century, it will be insufficient just to cultivate the 21st century capabilities in leaders. We should expect all of the organisation's human resources to have 21st century capabilities. After all without the right bottom up foundation leaders of organisations may not be able to truly innovate.

david-kirkpatrick's picture

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” ~ Buckminster Fuller

I must admit that I've had a change of mental direction lately. I've had some success towards making cultural changes that reflect a "modern management method", and expect to do more. But when I'm trying to make long lasting cultural changes within an organization that is very rooted in traditional management, I'm way too often feeling like Sysiphus rolling his boulder up the hillside-- hold on, I need to run back down to the bottom to get my rock again!

Replacing over a hundred plus years of management thought and practice won't happen overnight, and yet I've come to question whether the best approach is to try fight against the existing reality (i.e. trying to change the thinking and practices of the leadership in my organization) or take a longer-term view and focus on building a new model (i.e. growing new leaders to whom these modern approaches are a given). When I was in high-school, I had a mentor who shaped many of my thoughts. At one point during a teenage tirade about my parents, he stopped me and said (paraphrased), "You can't change them! You can only change yourself." But as an addendum, I think you can say that it's possible to change those who come after you.

What will it take? Nothing short of Hurculean effort (sorry, had to keep with the Greek mythos theme started here), but as a community if we focus consistently on making changes to the institutions and materials that are used to form new managers, the long term result would surpass all the MIXers Hacking away at their orgs from inside.

loretta-brown's picture

My vote is for this challenge!
I would like to see global intelligence added to the list - the capacity to "see" and act as global citizens and be responsible at a global level.

How do we create accountability for these capacities?
Rushing to solutions I know! - but Professional Supervision is a well developed tradition in some arena's and the time is ripe for professional supervision for leaders - the facilitation of structured reflection, learning and ethical accountability...

kartik-subbarao's picture

This is my favorite Challenge in the entire list. I think this challenge is holistic, visionary and capable of making an *immediate* and practical impact to any human being who works inside or outside any organization. It's the kind of challenge that has the potential to attract people with a staggeringly diverse range of intelligences to apply their talents for a common purpose. It's a challenge that the MIX is perfectly suited to champion!

kerry-oconnor's picture

I totally agree! I think this challenge incorporates elements that the other challenges have. It's practical, and therefore most likely of them all to have immediate and wide impact.

scott-christofferson's picture

Would be beneficial also to think about the implications of these organizational goals (resilience, inventiveness, etc.) for employees. Yes, it's a big change in terms of leadership expectations. But it's also a very different set of expectations on staff - we're asking them to do more problem-solving and exercise more judgment on their own, rather than wait for the leader to tell them what to do. Organizational processes, management structures, technology, etc. can either unleash or suppress the ability of employees to contribute.

bala-subramanian's picture

I believe, this challenge has the potential to help humanity attain the next stage in its evolution. One of the limitation is revealed in the description of this challenge viz., "Unfortunately, there is little in the average business school curriculum or corporate training program that cultivates these, and other, essential capabilities". We are still silo-ed into thinking "Business Schools", "Fashion/Arts Schools etc.," We need to develop inter-disciplinary thinking to connect individuals to all aspects of knowledge. However, doing this at an individual level is likely to be slow and never enough due to many variables. The faster and more sustainable approach is to build them into an application that any one-one can use, whenever necessary. I have proposed this as an hack last year. Perhaps, it could re-evaluated to help meet this year's challenge.